Observing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to restart negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis one can't help but be struck by a sense of déjà vu. Kerry, who visits Israel and the Palestinian territories this week, has launched an initiative to improve the economic conditions of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This proposal might be considered innovative if a plan to "improve the Palestinian quality of life" -- which in practice means improving the conditions of Israel's Palestinian subjects while ignoring their subjugation -- had not been mooted in 1983 by Secretary of State George Shultz. In the intervening decades, Palestinian "quality of life" has worsened considerably.
Similarly, there are reports of Kerry touting an Arab peace plan that would reaffirm the 1967 boundaries as the basis for a settlement. The same plan was originally put forward by Saudi Arabia's then-Crown Prince Abdullah at the 2002 Arab summit meeting and reiterated in 2007, both times to general Israeli and U.S. indifference. The core principles in the original initiative were far from novel: they simply recapitulated the terms of U.N. Security Council resolution 242 of 1967. Like its nearly-identical predecessors, the plan was ignored by the Israeli government, even though it includes explicit reference to the possibility of territorial "swaps" Israel has long insisted on.
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Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have been barred from running in Iran's upcoming presidential election. Iran's Guardian Council, tasked with vetting candidates, determined the final list of candidates for the June 14 election Tuesday night, which included six ultraconservative loyalist candidates and two centrist candidates, and excluded Rafsanjani and Mashaei. More than 680 people registered as candidates. While Mashaei was expected to be blocked, many Iranians were shocked by Rafsanjani's disqualification. Rafsanjani was a pillar of the 1979 Islamic revolution that led to the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran; however, he had become a reformist candidate and was backed by the opposition Green Movement. Ahmadinejad said he will ask Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to reverse the decision preventing his ally Mashaei from running. While Khamenei could reinstate the two candidates, many analysts think that is unlikely.
Fierce fighting continued into Tuesday between Syrian government forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters, and opposition forces over the strategic town of Qusayr. According to Syrian state news, regime forces have made advances, expanding their control from eastern districts into the center and north. However, opposition fighters claim they are holding ground. Syria's opposition National Coalition has called for reinforcements from across the country to join the fight in Qusayr. Additionally, head of the coalition, George Sabra, called for the international community to set up a humanitarian corridor. The outcome of the battle over Qusayr could determine the control of important supply lines, and opposition fighters are concerned that if they lose the town, they will lose all of Homs province to the regime. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would authorize supplying weapons to moderate opposition fighters. Though the legislation is far from being adopted, it shows greater bipartisan support for the United States to arm, to some extent, rebel fighters.
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"We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator ... America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region ... we need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike."
Which prominent American spoke these words? It was neither Senator John McCain, enthusiast of democracy promotion, nor former President George W. Bush, architect of the Freedom Agenda. It was our realist, pragmatic President Barack Obama, in a major speech on May 19, 2011, during the heady early months of the Arab Spring. The president argued that concentrating mainly on longstanding U.S. security interests was no longer enough. Obama declared that encouraging transitions to democracy was now a "top U.S. priority that must be translated into concrete actions and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools at our disposal." He announced a three-pronged strategy for the transitioning countries: standing up firmly for democratic values, helping troubled economies, and expanding engagement beyond Arab regimes to newly-emboldened citizens.
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Israeli soldiers returned fire into Syria on Tuesday in response to shots that reportedly damaged a military vehicle in the third cross-border shooting this week in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. There were no injuries reported. An Israeli spokesperson said, the shots "most likely were stray bullets, we don't know if it was intentional." However, soon after, the Syrian military released a statement saying, "Our armed forces have destroyed an Israeli vehicle with everything that it had in it. The vehicle had crossed the cease-fire line." This was the first time the Syrian regime admitted to firing at Israeli forces in the Golan since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reasserted his concerns about Israeli security as the conflict in Syria flares, stressing the potential of Israeli airstrikes to prevent Hezbollah or other militant groups from getting advanced weapons. Israeli has allegedly carried out three airstrikes in Syrian territory this year in order to stop weapons transfers to Hezbollah. Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague insinuated he will veto the renewal of the European Union arms embargo on Syria if member states prevent moves to allow weapons transfers to opposition fighters. There is disagreement within Britain over arms transfers, but lapse of the embargo would allow for possible weapons deliveries in the future. According to The Guardian, the decision in April by the EU to lift its oil sanctions on Syria has led to increased internal clashes between opposition groups and has strengthened jihadist groups. As infighting has risen over oil, water, and agricultural land, pressure on the Syrian government has eased. The Islamist opposition faction al-Nusra Front has reportedly taken control of most of the oil wells in Deir al-Zour province and has struck deals with regime forces to guarantee the transfer of crude to the Mediterranean coast.
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A series of car bombings have hit the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Basra on Monday, killing an estimated 48 people. No group has taken responsibility for the attacks which targeted several Shiite districts of the Iraqi capital as well as the oil-rich predominantly Shiite city of Basra, in southeastern Iraq. Bombs exploded at a restaurant and bus stop in Basra, and were followed by about nine car bombs in Baghdad. In a separate incident, 10 police officers were reported killed Sunday at a police station in Anbar Province and additionally, the bodies of five police officers who had been kidnapped were found. About 150 people have been killed across Iraq in the past week in the worst sectarian tensions seen since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in December 2011.
Fierce fighting continued into Monday between Syrian troops, backed by Hezbollah fighters, and opposition forces over the strategic town of Qusayr. Qusayr, about 18 miles southwest of Homs, links Damascus to government strongholds on the Mediterranean coast, and is also an important supply route for opposition forces and link to fighters from Lebanon, just 6 miles away. Clashes have been ongoing for weeks around Qusayr and government forces launched a major offensive Sunday, making significant advances. Syrian state news agency reported that the government had control of most of the town on Monday, but opposition activists denied reports the town had been overtaken. The fighting has brought the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah to the forefront, and underscores concerns of a spreading regional conflict. Between 30 and 40 Hezbollah fighters were reportedly killed in Qusayr on Sunday. The battle for Qusayr has been sited by government loyalists and opposition activists as a turning point, that according to one activist could, "decide the fate of the regime and the revolution."
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Russia has sent advanced antiship cruise missiles to Syria, according to anonymous U.S. officials. The Yakhonts, which have an advanced radar, underscore the continued support of Russia for the Syrian regime, giving the government the capacity to stave off international efforts to reinforce the Syrian opposition by sea. The shipment comes as the United States and Russia are planning an international conference aimed at bringing together the Syrian government and opposition. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he had brought up U.S. concerns over Russian arms supplies to Syria during his recent visit. He said, "I think we've made it crystal clear we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance." On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "We have not hidden that we supply weapons to Syria under signed contracts, without violating any international agreements, or our own legislation." Russia has increased its presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, sending about a dozen warships near its naval base in Syria's port city of Tartus. According to a senior U.S. defense official, "It is a show of force." U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with Russian leaders on Friday to discuss the crisis in Syria. Ban, alongside Lavrov, said that a peace conference "should be held as soon as possible." Lavrov said that Syrian delegations have not yet been decided so an official date for the conference has not been set; however the meeting is expected to take place in Geneva during the first half of June. Syrian's main opposition group is expected to decide next week on whether it will participate in the conference, and Russia's push for Iran to be included in the meeting could add further complications. Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Washington with U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday. The two leaders differed on many points on how to deal with the Syrian crisis, but agreed that President Bashar al-Assad must leave power. Erdogan is looking for international action on Syria, at least with the implementation of a no-fly zone, while Obama, reluctant to involve the United States in another war, ruled out unilateral U.S. military action.
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"You are not going to war against the youth, but against the religion of Allah." The statement, which appeared Sunday night on the Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) Facebook page, was attributed to Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, AST's emir and the founder of the al Qaeda-linked Tunisian Islamic Combatant Group (TICG). Coming after Tunisian authorities suppressed AST preaching events in multiple cities, the text is part of an escalating war of words and deeds between AST, Tunisian security forces, and the Islamist Ennahda-led government over the past several months, compounded by the September 14, 2012 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Al-Tunisi's statement also threatened, in subtle but unmistakable tones, a jihad against Tunisian authorities.
The risk of open conflict may have become even more likely Wednesday after Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi announced that AST's annual conference in the city of Kairouan, scheduled for Sunday, would not be allowed to take place, though an AST spokesman vowed Thursday that the event would go forward. But the immediate spark came when Tunisian security forces began striking homemade landmines in the rugged region around Jebel Chaambi near the country's western border with Algeria.
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A series of bombings across Iraq Wednesday evening killed at least 34 people. Within an hour in the capital Baghdad, 11 explosions, mostly car bombings, killed 23 people and wounded over 100 others, mostly in Shiite districts. Sadr City was hit the worst with three bombs, two of which exploded in busy markets, but attacks were also reported in Kadhimiya, Husseiniya, Mashtal, Baghdad al-Jadida, Saidiya, and Zafaraniya. Additionally, bombings in the northern ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk killed an estimated 10 people. A car bomb exploded near a government building, followed by another car bomb an hour later in the same area. On Thursday, four additional bombs killed at least 12 people in Shiite districts of Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul. No group has taken responsibility for the attacks. There has been a surge in sectarian violence in Iraq since the army raided a Sunni anti-government protest camp near the northern town of Hawija last month, killing an estimated 50 people.
The United Nations General Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution on Wednesday condemning Syrian government forces, praising the opposition, and calling for a political solution to end the war in Syria. The vote, however, showed a decline in support for the opposition since a resolution passed in August 2012 -- with 107 votes in favor compared to 133 in the previous vote and a drastic increase in abstentions. Many diplomats expressed increasing concerns over the rise in the presence of Islamist extremists in the conflict. There was also a sentiment that the resolution would not help to convince the Syrian government and opposition to participate in peace talks recently proposed by the United States and Russia. At the beginning of the session, President of the U.N. General Assembly Vuk Jeremic stated, "At least 80,000 have perished since the start of the hostilities, with most of the casualties believed to be civilians." Meanwhile, a BBC correspondent has reported evidence of a chemical attack last month in the northern town of Saraqeb. Eyewitnesses claimed that government helicopters dropped at least two devices containing poisonous gas on April 29. Additionally, doctors at the local hospital said they admitted eight people suffering from breathing problems. The BBC reported it has received videos that seem to support these claims, but is not able to independently verify them. In other news, a video posted on Thursday showed opposition al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front fighters executing 11 Syrian soldiers they accused of committing "massacres."
AFP/Getty Images/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
The United Nations General Assembly is expected to approve an Arab-backed draft resolution on Syria in a vote on Wednesday. The draft resolution condemns the Syrian government and accepts the Syrian National Coalition as a party to a potential political transition. The draft resolution is opposed by Russia, a strong ally of the Syrian regime, and is not expected to win as many votes as an August 2012 resolution, which passed with 133 countries in favor. A senior western diplomat said that the Islamist factor has added complications and it is not as clear to countries now that the opposition is the winning side. According to another senior diplomat, this draft resolution is stronger than the earlier one, and Russia has complained that it is unbalanced. The draft resolution condemns violence from all sides, and demands that the Syrian government allow for a U.N. inquiry into chemical weapons allegations. Unlike U.N. Security Council resolutions, General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding and cannot be enforced. However, the three Western-backed Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring the Assad regime have been vetoed by Russia and China. The United States and Russia have been planning for an international conference on Syria they hope to hold in June. Speaking from Sweden on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said "progress is being made" on bringing together representatives from the Syrian government and opposition. According to Kerry, Assad's regime has given Russia a list of officials that would attend the potential talks. Meanwhile, Syria's Internet is reportedly down for the second time in two weeks. According to Syrian residents and the U.S.-based Internet monitoring company Renesys Corp., Syria went offline at 10:00 a.m. local time Wednesday. Syria's state news agency, SANA, said there were technical problems and maintenance teams were working on the issue.
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Egypt's politics since the 2011 revolution has consistently combined bare-knuckled combat with abstruse legal maneuvering, as if WWE wrestlers were attempting to operate parts of their contest within the framework of a Japanese tea ceremony. There are four major differences. First, wrestling matches and tea ceremonies last minutes and hours, but Egypt's legal-political battles began decades ago and show no hint of dénouement. Second, the Egyptian struggles are completely unscripted and unpredictable. Third, they matter. Fourth, their participants are focused not only on the moment but also steeped historical antecedents of today's struggles -- it is impossible, for instance, to hear a discussion of the judiciary that does not refer to an infamous judicial purge in 1969.
In order to assist befuddled observers of Egyptian politics, we have assembled this brief guide explaining the current state of play.
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U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron met in Washington on Monday, reaffirming their commitment to the Syrian opposition. Cameron said his government has not yet made a decision to arm opposition fighters, but committed to double its non-lethal aid over the coming year as well as continue providing humanitarian relief for refugees. Obama spoke about U.S. and Russian efforts to bring together the Syrian government and opposition for negotiations, but injected a word of caution saying, "There are going to be enormous challenges." The Syrian regime and opposition have requested more details about the proposed conference before committing to attend. Obama also noted that he had spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin several times and stated that Russia has an interest in encouraging a stable and democratic Syria after Assad leaves power. Putin is hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for talks on the Syrian conflict on Tuesday. Israel expressed concerns last week about Russia's arms deliveries of advanced S-300 missile batteries to the Syrian government. Meanwhile, an unauthenticated video has been released that appears to show a Syrian rebel eating the heart of a dead government soldier, drawing widespread condemnation. Human Rights Watch identified the man as Abu Sakkar, leader of the Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade. The U.S. based human rights group said all people responsible for war crimes in the Syrian conflict will be held accountable. A spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition said, "we completely condemn this act, which is an affront to human values, Islamic ethics and the ideals of the coalition and the Free Syrian Army."
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Iraq's April 20 provincial elections were like two elections in one country. They included all provinces outside the Kurdistan region except Kirkuk, due to a long-standing dispute over election law, and the predominately Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninawa, where the cabinet postponed elections under the pretext of security following a series of candidate assassinations. Elections are now set for July 4 in those two provinces.
The "Shiite election" covered the southern nine provinces plus Baghdad and parts of Diyala and Salah al-Din. In this election Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition (SLC) won a reduced plurality, large enough to keep alive any hopes Maliki might have of a third term following next year's parliamentary elections, but too weak to provide him a clear mandate. Secular Shiite parties faired poorly, and most of the vote shifted to Islamists, likely in reaction against the excesses of recent Sunni protests.
Syria has denied responsibility for two car bombings on Saturday in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli that killed an estimated 46 people and injured 100 others. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said his country "did not commit and would never commit such an act because our values would not allow that." Turkish police have arrested nine Turkish citizens suspected of having a connection with the attacks. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the people responsible for the bombings were from an "old Marxist terrorist organization" with ties to the Syrian regime. He said the attacks were a breach of Turkey's "red line" and called on the "international community to display a common stance against the regime, immediately and without delay." Concerns over the spread of the Syrian conflict continue to increase, and anger has heightened in the predominantly Sunni town that is housing tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, the rebel Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade reportedly released four Filipino U.N. peacekeepers who had been posted in the Golan Heights and were abducted last Tuesday. The brigade said the soldiers were held "for their own safety." The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has released a new estimate for the death toll in the Syrian conflict, saying that 82,257 have been killed since fighting began in March 2011. In February, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said the death toll was approaching 70,000.
Relations between Bahrain and the United States reached a new level of volatility this week as the kingdom's cabinet approved a parliamentary proposal to, as Information Minister Samira Rajab said, "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain's internal affairs." The Bahraini cabinet's endorsement of a proposal to stop Krajeski from "interfering in domestic affairs" and meeting government opponents is a significant move that should do more than raise eyebrows in Washington.
While U.S. diplomats have been repeatedly attacked by the pro-government media and by the country's parliament for being too close to the pro-democracy opposition, attacks which included personal threats, this is different. This wasn't a crackpot newspaper or a loose cannon member of parliament saying this, but rather the cabinet, which includes the prime minister and the crown crince. The crown prince was supposed to be Washington's friend -- the young western-educated heir to the throne, the reformer in the family, the guy of the future -- whom the U.S. government had banked on to champion democratic reform in Bahrain.
Filipino Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said he recommended to President Benigno Aquino that he withdraw its peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after four soldiers were abducted Tuesday. The Syrian rebel Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade said it is holding the soldiers "for their own safety" and has posted two videos of the men to show that they have not been harmed. Two months ago, 20 Filipino peacekeepers were seized from the same area by Syrian rebels and were held for a few days before being released. The peacekeepers were used to demand the pullback of Syrian regime forces. A total 342 Filipino soldiers are posted in the Golan Heights. The group comprises about one third of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) which has been monitoring the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria since 1974. Del Rosario said the soldiers were being held as human shields against attack by Syrian government forces and their exposure was "beyond tolerable limits."
British Prime Minister David Cameron is planning to use meetings in the coming days with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss the crisis in Syria and suggest that an international conference be held in Britain. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Russian president and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week and announced a joint plan for a conference. However, while meeting with Jordanian officials in Rome on Thursday, Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could not be part of a "transitional government" in post-war Syria, which could pose a challenge to the agreement made with the Russians. Earlier, Kerry had said the situation was a matter for the Syrian people to decide. Meanwhile, in a televised speech, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, increased tensions with Israel saying the Syrian government would respond to recent Israeli airstrikes near Damascus by supplying Hezbollah fighters with weapons. Nasrallah was not clear about the type of arms, but said they were "unique weapons that it had never had before" and that it would "change the balance" of power with Israel. On Thursday, Syrian officials said they would retaliate for the Israeli strikes last weekend. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told Agence France-Presse they would "not allow this to be repeated" and "would respond immediately to any Israeli attack."
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A U.S. diplomat gave the first public account of the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi by a U.S. official who was on the ground in Libya. Former Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks, second in command to Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was among four Americans who died in the attack, testified on Wednesday in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The committee also heard testimony from Mark Thompson, the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism's deputy coordinator for operations, and Eric Nordstrom, who was formerly in charge of U.S. security in Libya. Hicks said he was "stunned" by the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice's comments after the attack that it had been a spontaneous act that came out of an anti-American demonstration. Hicks also said a team of special operations forces was preparing to go from Tripoli to Benghazi, but it was told to stand down. The accounts, however, did not shed much light on whether there was anything more the U.S. military could have done to prevent the attack. Democrats have accused Republicans of politicizing the events and making false accusations about the Obama administration. Conversely, Republicans say the administration has intentionally misled the America people.
The United States expressed concerns Wednesday that Russia is planning to sell Syria a sophisticated ground-to-air missile defense system. Russia has been a major arms supplier for the Syrian government, but the delivery of the Russian S-300 missile batteries would be a significant advancement. Israel warned the United States of the deal, saying Syria had already begun making payments toward the $900 million purchase. An Israeli official said, "We have raised objections to this with the Russians, and the Americans have too." The information has come less than a day after the United States and Russia announced new joint efforts to bring about a political solution to the Syrian conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on Tuesday plans to convene an international conference, a step which was lauded by U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. Brahimi said, "This is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time," but he cautioned that it is merely a first step.
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Kurdish rebel fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) have begun their withdrawal from southeastern Turkey as stipulated by a peace deal negotiated between Turkey and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in March. Over 40,000 people have died in the conflict, which has spanned nearly three decades. There are an estimated 2,000 PKK fighters in Turkey, and they will withdraw in phases over the course of about four months. The PKK expressed concern over an apparent increase of Turkish troop movements and reconnaissance drones on Tuesday. During a negotiated withdrawal in 1999, the Turkish military ambushed Kurdish fighters, killing an estimated 500 people. Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas said, "We have no doubt about the state but fear provocation from dark forces." There was, however, no sign of military activity on Wednesday. The first fighters are expected to arrive in northern Iraq's Qandil mountains in a week. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized the timeline of the withdrawal, stressing that the fighters should disarm before leaving. But, this was rejected by the PKK, which feared the departing forces would come under assault.
After meetings on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov announced a plan to arrange an international conference aimed at ending the over two year conflict in Syria which has killed over 70,000 people. Kerry said their intention is to convince representatives from the Syrian government and the opposition to attend. He continued that the United States and Russia want to hold the peace conference "as soon as practical, possibly, hopefully as soon as the end of the month." The move seemed to be an optimistic step as the United States and Russia have not been able to agree to unified efforts on Syria. Lavrov said the United States and Russia were committed to a deal that would assure the "sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Syria. Kerry and Lavrov did not offer details on how they would get the warring parties to the negotiating table, nor did they elaborate on why they expect these efforts would be any more successful than those taken in the past. Meanwhile, four Filipino U.N. peacekeepers were seized Tuesday "by an unidentified armed group" while they were on patrol along the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights. The Islamist opposition group Martyrs of Yarmouk reportedly published a photo of the four men, and said they were being held for their own safety. The Martyrs of Yarmouk abducted 21 Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan in March, and released them after holding them for three days.
Mr. Hassan al-Yafa'ei, head of the secessionist "Hirak" in al-Houtta South of Yemen, spoke with passion and grief about his region. He is filled with indignation over the unfair discrimination of the South. He is completely convinced, however, that the 1986 civil war is a historical incident that will not be repeated. In his view, the almost 10,000 deaths that occurred in a single month is just an "aberrant phenomenon." Al-Yafa'ei, just like many other Southerners, underplays the possibility of violence occurring if a Southern secession should take place. Such incessant denial of the possibility of the past repeating itself is convenient for many Southerners who want to become an independent Southern nation -- putting the chapter of "Unity gone bad" behind them.
The question of "What will happen to the South if a secession takes place?" has rarely been probed by Hirak. The mechanisms of this desired disunion are left to the same politicians who plunged the South of Yemen to its previous fate of wars and instability. And once again, sentiments of people in the streets are high on "self-determination" rhetoric, without adequately thinking through how this step would resolve their political differences and leaders' penchant for popular exploitation.
Fatima Abo Alasrar
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin for talks on the crisis in Syria. Russia, a longtime ally of the Syrian regime, and the United States have been at odds since the beginning of the uprising in Syria in March 2011, and are divided over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia and China have, on three occasions, blocked U.S.-led efforts at the United Nations to pressure Assad to resign. Kerry's visit has come days after Israeli airstrikes on weapons facilities in Syria targeted missiles it says were intended to be transferred to Hezbollah. Russia condemned the attacks and Putin said he had spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to U.S. officials, Kerry is hoping to persuade Putin to take a tougher stance on Syria through two new angles: U.S. threats to arm the Syrian opposition and evidence of government use of chemical weapons. Russia's foreign ministry has criticized the West for politicizing the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. Carla Del Ponte, of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, has suggested chemical weapons were used by opposition fighters rather than the Assad regime. The United States however has dismissed the statement saying it believes that Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles remain under government control.
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Israel launched airstrikes early Sunday into Syria for the second time in three days raising concerns of the spread of the Syrian conflict. Israeli jets reportedly hit several critical military facilities near Damascus, killing dozens of elite troops near the presidential palace, according to a Syrian military official. Opposition activists and fighters, as well as residents, said the airstrikes hit Republican Guard bases and long-range missile storehouses, as well as a military research center at Jamraya, which U.S. officials have said is Syria's main chemical weapons facility. The attacks came after a strike early on Friday on a weapons facility at Damascus International Airport, which security sources said had Iranian missiles, which were to be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. An anonymous senior Israeli government official said, "If we don't take action now, we will be on the receiving end of those missiles." Israel hasn't confirmed Sunday's attacks, and the White House declined to say if it believed Israel was responsible for the airstrikes. Syria condemned the strikes as a "declaration of war" and threatened retaliation, saying it was open to "all the options." While some analysts believe Syrian retaliation is unlikely, as a precaution, Israel deployed two of its Iron Dome missile defense batteries to its northern border and closed civilian flights to the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Meanwhile, with the increased speculation that chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian conflict, the head of the U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria Carla del Ponte said there is "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof," that opposition fighters have used sarin gas. She did not elaborate as to when or where deadly nerve agent may have been used. Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Almokadad dismissed the statement insisting the opposition fighters do not have nor want chemical weapons, and "don't have the mechanism to launch these kinds of weapons."
AFP/Getty Images/MENAHEM KAHANA
In the wake of reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used sarin, a chemical weapon, it appears that U.S. President Barack Obama is on the brink of providing the Syrian opposition with lethal weapons. But it certainly does not seem that the Obama administration pursued the full range of nonlethal options available, particularly those involving the international community. Here's an idea: To affect meaningful and decisive change in Syria, which is suffering from a humanitarian catastrophe, the international community should use all available diplomatic and economic leverage to choke off the arms, resources, and money flowing to the regime.
A new Human Rights First report reveals that at least a dozen countries -- including Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Angola, Georgia, Lebanon, Cyprus, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates -- are continuing to provide the Assad regime with weapons, fuel, military technology, and access to financial markets. The paper provides both a unique overview of Assad's third-party supporters and a roadmap the U.S. government can follow to crack down on them. The U.S. government should use diplomacy to try to influence the countries providing these resources as well as the countries allowing these resources to pass through their jurisdiction. In addition, the U.S. Treasury should use existing authority under the Syria sanctions regime to designate those entities continuing to support the Assad regime and block them from the U.S. marketplace.
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In the fall of 2012, three mothers, along with their infant children, begin serving one-to-two-year prison terms in Iran. Their crime? Being Baha'is in the birthplace of their faith. In February 2012, a man is jailed without charge in Saudi Arabia. Why? According to authorities, for his own safety because he allegedly "disturbed the public order" by tweeting comments deemed to insult the religious feelings of others. In December 2012, an atheist blogger is sentenced to three years in prison in Egypt. His offense? Posting online content that allegedly "insulted God and cast doubt on the books of the Abrahamic religions."
These are just some of the many examples of the contempt that governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) often exhibit toward freedom of religion or belief. Since the onset of the Arab Awakening in early 2011, religious freedom conditions have not improved, but declined. While larger hopes for justice and democracy are experiencing convulsive birth pangs, majority and minority religious believers alike face increasing government repression in many MENA countries; sectarian violence is on the upswing; and violent religious extremism is fueling regional instability.
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Government forces and pro-regime militias attacked and raided the predominantly Sunni coastal village of Baida in northwestern Syria on Thursday, killing at least 50 people. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the death toll will likely exceed 100, including women and children. It added that many people appear to have been killed in summary execution style shootings or stabbings, and some bodies were found burned. Dozens of villagers remain missing. The attack on the village, near the city of Banias, was spurred by an opposition assault on a bus carrying pro-Assad militiamen, shabiha, killing at least six of them and injuring 20. Regime fighters and shabiha retaliated by surrounding Baida and the nearby town of Maqreb, and attacking them with mortar fire, and then storming Baida. The Syrian military seems to have made significant gains in recent weeks, retaking territory in Homs and several Damascus suburbs. Meanwhile, in a news conference on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel became the first top U.S. official to acknowledge that the Obama administration is considering arming the Syrian opposition. He said, "arming the rebels -- that's and option," but continued that the president is looking at all options. U.S., British, French, Russian, and Chinese officials met with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Thursday to discuss diplomatic options for ending the conflict in Syria. U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has expressed an intention to resign over the international deadlock on Syria. According to some diplomats he could step down by the end of May.
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Last week's attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli was the first significant terrorist attack against foreign interests in the Libyan capital since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. More crucially, it marks an escalation in the covert war being waged to determine the future orientation, institutions, constitution, and very soul of the new Libya. At the same time the conflict between the government and militias has escalated, with the latter besieging the ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, demanding the resignation of the ministers and the immediate application of the political isolation law, which is in the process of being debated and voted on. Collectively, these events show a decrease in the legitimate political institutions' capacity to guide the transition process successfully and an increase in the attempts of armed elements to alter the rules of the political game in their favor.
For the international community the attack against the French Embassy and the radicalization of the conflict between militias and government institutions must serve as a wake-up call, and remind them that the gains of the NATO-led intervention are at risk of being undone. The countries that helped overthrow Qaddafi should redouble their efforts to support the creation of professional armed forces and police, vocational training, and constitution writing. If greater support is withheld, the French Embassy attack may prove to be the start of a trend, in which case Libyan -- and by extension North African -- instability would become a permanent status quo. The crisis in Mali and the growing instability in Algeria -- and most recently Tunisia -- offer clear evidence in support of this conjecture.
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King Abdullah II spent most of last week in Washington, D.C., where he tried to shore up U.S. support for Jordan by meeting with business leaders (pitching Jordan for foreign investment), civil society organizations (including American Arab, Muslim, and Jewish organizations), congressional leaders, the vice president, and finally, with President Barack Obama at the White House. Yet upon his return to Jordan, the king was met with a new statement of domestic opposition, signed by almost a thousand opposition figures, railing against a multitude of regime policies, both foreign and domestic. Having just returned from a seemingly successful visit to the United States, this is probably not the welcome that the king was hoping for.
Jordanian officials used to joke that Jordanian foreign policy could best be explained by noting that Jordan existed "between Iraq and a hard place." That old English-language pun may not have been riotously funny in the past, but in the present it no longer even comes close to explaining the extent of external pressures on the kingdom. The economy remains disastrous. The reform process remains incomplete and contested. And the Syrian civil war edges ever closer to Jordan, threatening to drag the kingdom into a conflict that it is desperately trying to avoid.
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In a press conference on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama signaled he is considering sending weapons and ammunition to Syrian opposition forces. This would be a policy shift for the administration, which has up until now provided only non-lethal and humanitarian assistance. The statement came just days after U.S. intelligence reports suggested that chemical weapons were used in Syria. Obama has said the use of such weapons would be a "game changer," but he has maintained that there needs to be "hard, effective evidence" before considering military action against Syria. He said there are a number of options that have been prepared for him, which have not been deployed. According to anonymous officials, these include a "no-fly zone" over Syria and targeted missile strikes. Additionally, the president insinuated that the United States would not act unilaterally. On Monday, Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to convince Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, that the likely use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government should lead Putin to end his support for the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, in a televised speech Tuesday, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said the group is ready to protect the Syrian regime. Nasrallah said, "Syria has true friends in the region and the world that won't permit Syria to fall in the hands of America, Israel, and [extremist] groups." He stated that members of Hezbollah were "providing appropriate aid" to Syrian government forces. The opposition Syrian National Coalition denounced the "threats" from Hezbollah, and accused the group of backing government fighters in Shiite villages along the border between Syria and Lebanon.
Life rarely gives you second chances. But if handled deftly, the Arab Peace Initiative (API), discussed yesterday at a Blair House meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and an assembled group of Arab foreign ministers, could help form the basis of a serious reconstituted peace process. The delegation came to Washington under the guise of the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee -- a group charged with securing acceptance of the API by Israel and others.
The API was proposed over a decade ago by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah at a 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut that convened amidst raging Israeli-Palestinian violence. Endorsed by the Arab League, the proposal offered Israel the prospect of peace, security, and normal relations -- a goal Israel has sought since its independence in 1948. In return, the Arabs called on Israel to agree to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.
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